Don’t Fail Them Now

A doctor-turned-teacher prescribes classroom methods to mitigate a mental health crisis among young people.

Author: Jason Kelly ’95

Chris Jenson ’99 loves hearing from former students about their “chest X-ray moments.” These situations still pop up, years after those young adults left his high school anatomy class, and they usually have nothing to do with the subject.

Here’s a typical scenario: They’re at work, probably in a very un-anatomy-related profession, and a problem arises that nothing in their experience has prepared them to solve. Doesn’t matter what the issue is. A “chest X-ray moment,” by definition, has broad applicability.

Back in that anatomy class Jenson used to teach, students learned about lungs for a few days before he’d turn them loose to diagnose problems on X-rays he hung around the room.

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Jenson designed the assignment to be a little bit beyond their ability. They could approach it however they chose — by themselves, in groups, notebooks open, Googling all they wanted. As a rule, they couldn’t find many issues with the X-rays. To be honest, they’d tell Jenson afterward, the whole thing seemed unfair and overwhelming. He’d ask how they responded to that feeling, what strategies they used to navigate a situation they didn’t feel equipped to handle.

That was the lesson within the lesson: training students to tap into their inner MacGyvers, to cobble together solutions from whatever resources they have available. When they’re presented with metaphorical chest X-rays later on, the thinking goes, they’ll handle them better if their classroom work incorporated little obstacle courses that resemble real life.

“No matter what you do, whether you are a plumber, wash cars, a writer, an architect, you are going to be handed something that you are not trained for. You will feel overwhelmed,” Jenson would tell the students. “This is only high school, but what was good about what you did, and what would you never do again? Hold onto that.”

The chest X-rays were not just about creative problem-solving. The exercise, he says today, supports mental health, which has experienced an alarming decline among students over the past two decades.

A former emergency-room physician, Jenson started teaching high school when he and his wife, an anesthesiologist, decided that raising their two daughters would be more manageable with only one working doctor in the family. In 2020, he left the classroom to become chief medical adviser to a Kansas City-area school district, and he’s a consultant on health issues for education leaders around the country. His 2021 book After the Mask: A Guide to Caring for Students and Schools — written with two former students, twin sisters Jessica and Rachael Sorcher —proposes classroom tactics to help strengthen mental health among young people.

What Jenson calls “a firehose of data” demonstrates a troubling surge in psychological suffering among school-aged kids. For instance, he notes Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figures indicating that more than one-third of high school students in 2019 “experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.” That represents a 40 percent increase over a decade. Diagnoses of anxiety disorders and depression also have been on the rise, and emergency-room visits for mental health issues among adolescents have trended upward as well.

Last year, the educational, social and emotional ramifications of virtual school heightened awareness of the problem, but it long predates the coronavirus pandemic. “Everyone was talking about the strain on kids and adults, and that was very real, but there was a part of my brain that’s like, ‘Well, that strain has been there for a long time,’” Jenson says. “I’m happy we’re paying more attention to mental health, but this has been a downhill slide for at least 20 years.”

Generation Z, the young adults and children born between 1997 and 2012, has been hit hard. The reasons are multifaceted, with the shocks of 9/11, financial crises, political and social unrest, and now COVID-19 scarring the timeline of their lives.

These digital natives have at their literal fingertips a technological bounty — all the information in the world, friends and loved ones within reach anywhere, anytime.

They also experience the alienation, anxiety and self-doubt those tools can intensify — comparison with curated online lives, the addictive dopamine rush of the endless scroll.

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In Jenson’s decade as a teacher, his school twice experienced the worst-case scenario from that confluence of forces, losing two students to suicide. While emphasizing that schools alone cannot solve such a complex issue — most teachers are not qualified mental-health professionals — After the Mask offers methods to make a difference.

“We don’t have the capacity or the infrastructure or the resources, but we do have kids 40 hours a week, and there have got to be things we could be doing — that are not just a shotgun approach but evidence-based — that could be preventative and helpful,” Jenson says. “And so it really became a mission.”

Jenson argues for making time in every class for lessons that encourage self-efficacy and self-esteem in students. Even those with relative security and support can suffer from a lack of resilience and belief in themselves. The term “lawnmower parent” refers to Moms and Dads who clear away even small obstacles in a child’s path. That approach, well-meaning as it might be, writes Jenson, risks instilling “fragility” in Gen Z students.

Within the context of their subject, he says, teachers should build in broader life lessons to cultivate the resilience and confidence students will need to address life’s unforeseen brambles when nobody’s there to mow them down.

The kids need more X-ray moments.

Teachers, facing their own stresses, might not have the mental bandwidth or authority to make even the minor curricular alterations his approach would require. But without such changes, Jenson fears educators will fail students in the long run.

“Give teachers latitude, because this is more — I don’t know if I should say more important — but this is critically important, at least as important as education,” Jenson says. “I would argue, humbly, that your health is more important.”

Experience taught him that. Because Jenson doubts most of his students remember much anatomy, or how he “taught the heck out of the electron-transport chain.” But those lung X-rays have proven to be valuable life lessons.

Jason Kelly is an associate editor of this magazine. Hear more from Jenson and his co-authors on our podcast, The Endless Conversation